A Bug in the Sound System

Red Bull Music Academy (RBMA) is an annual music event gathering aspiring producers, singers, arrangers, DJs, and musicians from all over the globe for an opportunity to get industry wisdom from seasoned professionals. During its application phase, Red Bull holds workshops in as many as 50 countries, each being its own mini-Red Bull Music Academy consisting of couch conversations, workshops, performances, and what not. It’s only recently that Malaysia finally got a taste of the music initiative. Held for the first time in Kuala Lumpur last 9 March 2012, RBMA Session saw Kevin Martin in his latest musical alter ego, The Bug, as the inaugural lecturer here. JUICE was given an opportunity to have our own private couch session with the erudite producer of many names – discovering the magic dub has over women, Kevin’s anarchic tendencies, music journalism, and tonnes of other topics his rambly and verbose replies segued to in the course of just 40 minutes…

Images Niall O’Brien

What’s new with The Bug, a new album? You seem busier with your King Midas Sound persona…
Yeah, yeah. I’ve just been working very hard on a new album [as the bug] cause for the last year or two I’ve spent mostly working very heavily on the new King Midas Sound stuff. It’s just something that overtook me, overwhelm me. Everything I do I get really obsessed by, for me I’m not very good at multi-tasking. I prefer to just do one thing at a time as well I can. And King Midas Sound had a snowball effect, we never expected the interest that we had. We didn’t expect to be offered as many shows, but at the same time we wanted to try to improve the shows. Basically I had to take a break, I was working harder than ever. I had to put The Bug to one side for a while. And also because it gave me more time to think about what I wanted from the new The Bug album as well. I guess I think quite conceptually about things, for me I had to find the right angle I wanted to in on the next record.

Is it difficult for you to juggle all these different music personae?
No. I love doing what I do. It’s all me ultimately. I just wish I can clone myself 3 or 4 times. There’s literally not enough minutes in any given day. I wish I had more time, I wish I had 2 more of me, and that’s a major problem. It’s a blessing though, I do what I love. Most people I meet don’t get the opportunity I have. So for me I feel lucky every day I wake up because I know what I love and what I’m trying to do. As time passed on, you improve on the craft you learnt. I see it very much like that. For me I started music out of necessity, I felt like there wasn’t anything else I could do and wanted to do. My father and grandfather were both musicians. Postpunk music had a really big impact on me.

Just in terms of philosophically, culturally, and aesthetically. I pretty much made a parallel world out of music because the real world didn’t make much sense to me, and I can remember even as a kid blocking out the sounds of my parents arguing by putting 2 big speakers on both sides of my head. For me music is my biology, my physiology is musical. I think everyone is the same. That’s why music has been popular since prehistoric men. It’s about vibration and frequency, and we all react to that, they are major components of human life. Sound and how sound is passed from an instrument or a voice, from person to person, is just intrinsic to human beings… that’s a long answer and I diverted in a few ways. I apologise for that [laughs].

It’s alright, we dig long answers [laughs]. You mentioned that you had background in postpunk. Does the same postpunk ethos carry over to who you are now?
I think all things carry on. If you end up constantly working on music and trying to redefine who you are and why do it. And you try to find a way to get closer to your goal in making music, that stuff will always be in you. When I first heard Joy Division, Public Image Ltd, or the Birthday Party, they were all major experiences for me. Those influences stayed with me, but I’m very much more interested in looking to the future. I’m very hungry for new music, I’m very hungry to be inspired by new music. I want to feel competitive about music but not in a bullsh*t macho ego way. More in a way that would make me work harder and know that I gotta better myself.

For a long time in the studio complex where I worked, Jamie from Vex’d and Asian Dub Foundation were all in adjacent rooms to me. I’ve never been in that sort of environment before. It was really inspiring because you would feel like “whoa, they’re stepping up with this, I have to see if I can go one better than this,” but in a good way, you know. Not in a stupid way. In a supportive way, everyone is trying to make the best they can. I’m a perfectionist, on average it takes me 4 years to make an album. London Zoo took 4 years, Waiting for You took 4 years. I’m not gonna release stuff until I’m happy with them.

What’s the process like for you? Do you create tonnes of stuff at the same time or do you make one track at a time?
Generally I do into a song for a long period of time. I tried experimenting where I don’t do that – I tried working on several ideas at the same time. But I just realised that wasn’t the best way for me to work. The minor slight to that is I can take too long on one song. I remember an instance when I was doing a remix of Thom Yorke for XL Records where I got really lost in the track. It ended up taking up 4 months, crazy amount of time. I can remember halfway through having a real crisis, thinking maybe I’m just shit, maybe I wasn’t very good at what I do and this was just one huge mistake. I would often go through those periods, it’s like self-torture in a way.

It’s what you love and what you hate – those extremes and opposites are very much a part of the music process as far I’m concerned. And part of living life… for me life is experiencing extremes, the middle ground for me is living death. Those extremities of pleasure and pain are intrinsically linked, to achieve one you have to go through the other. Another long answer, I’ll just give you small soundbite answers from now on [laughs].

source: Niall O'Brien

Nah, at least this way it would lead to other interesting topics. Anyway, every time you move to a different music direction, you’d come up with a different alter ego. Why not just stick to one all-encompassing persona?
That’s a good question. There are probably a few different reasons for that. I think it’s partly to keep it fresh, keep an idea fresh and to reinvent yourself. I’m like everyone else, I like new ideas, concepts, new things thrown at me. I get bored as easily as anyone does. For me it keeps me interested, and if it gets other people interested in my progression, that’s cool. Also, I just changed. I’m not the same person I was 5, 10 years ago. So therefore why not change the whole concept around what I’m doing to reflect that.

A lot of people stick to same name, the same entity, the same concept, mostly to just please the industry. I remember when Techno Animal was signed to Matador Records, Justin and I both hated the name, we were really bored of that name by then and techno suddenly became this huge genre obviously. And that had nothing to do with us, so we told them we wanted to change the name and they basically said if we changed the name they won’t sign us.

In the end we kept the name because we felt it was important to get our album out to as many people as possible and they [Matador] were prepared to support an album that we felt we had to make at the time. But it’s just an example to show you how the industry sees you as a commodity, and if you keep changing it makes it more difficult for them and the media. I like mystery as well, I like that someone like Underground Resistance would be very difficult to pinpoint. You wouldn’t know who the members were, or how the fundamental structure was built. That keeps it interesting for me. I don’t believe in answers, I think answers are artificial creation. Everything is evolving and mutating all the time, why shouldn’t I.

Damn, that one was the longest answer thus far… How long do you see The Bug would stick around as a persona?
I have no idea. For me I have no problem stopping a project if I think it’s dead. If I feel like there’s no idea or been used up, like with God and Techno Animal, we stopped them dead. We felt they reached where we wanted them to go, we can’t think of a new direction that would make sense. At the moment I’m still excited with what I’m trying to do as The Bug.

Speaking of alter egos, at one point you were even a music journalist?
There’s a really good publication in the UK called The Wire, and I wrote for that for a long time. And Jockey Slut was a magazine concentrating on electronic music. I would cover hip hop, or experimental electronic music within that magazine.

Was it difficult to write about music as a musician yourself? People say when it comes to music criticism, empathy is an enemy.
It’s difficult, I appreciate good music journalism. Most musicians don’t, they don’t trust journalists. They see it as necessary evil. I think there are amazing music journalists who can inspire you to want to investigate music. I don’t find it difficult, one side of your brain is more focused on creativity, once you tapped into that side you’d see everything as creative endeavours. I studied graphic design and did a lot of the artwork for my label and my earlier releases. It’s natural if you see things artistically, that’s how you perceive everything around you. It’s not a dramatic change.

I see music journalism as a creative act when it’s done well, when it’s done bad it just reads like bad press release. People like Lester Bangs, Simon Reynolds and David Toop were amazing music writers. I wasn’t that good though. I wrote about music because I was broke at the time and it was one of the avenues that I had to make money that was linked to music. Everything I ever did was linked to music, I never had a “real job” as such.

Not even a single one?
[Not having a real job] was my aim from the start; why should I work for someone else doing something I don’t enjoy for sh*t money, basically using my time and using me. So for me it was always a philosophical goal. I picked this up as a kid, I used to read a lot of anarchist punk lyrics and listen to a lot of artistes who went against the grain. A lot of artistes now make music to become famous, make money, or hit on girls. That’s not why I make music, I make music for political reasons. The music that I make, and the music I love, is music which has fire in its belly. For me reggae, hip hop, free jazz, postpunk music all had social context. I’m not keen on music that’s bland and boring, just done for the sake of being background. I like foreground music.

What about music made just for people to dance to?
Bores me mostly. The way I play is very intense. I want everything, I want music that would make people dance and take their heads off. The best music is the combination of the two. I definitely want people to dance but at the same time I wanna give them some soul and mind nourishment as well. It’s not just mindless dancing, that’s not what I wanna do.

So it can’t be one or the other for you, it has to be both?
Yeah. Everything, music is everything. Literally overwhelms me. Music is best like any art form, it should make you feel like it’s changed your life in some way. Good or bad. A lot of music that I ended up loving the most I didn’t enjoy the first time hearing them. It took me for a while to acclimatise to them. That makes it more interesting to me. It’s not good to trust your initial instincts. It takes time to develop in your head.

We read that The Bug was partly created so that you could get closer to your Jamaican influences?
Yeah. I felt a lot of people just didn’t realise how much the projects I worked with owed a huge debt to Jamaican music. It’s the one constant in every project. I was obsessed by dub, as a musical process and as a philosophy and the idea of dub – how you can extrapolate it to other art form. I did sleeve notes where I wrote about that, how I felt dub was echoed in literature. In the way William S. Burroughs used the cut-up technique or the way someone like Jean-Luc Godard used editing in movies. I felt like there were reflections of dub in other art forms. I just love Jamaican dub music, I love the sheer headf*ck nature of it. I love the fact that it’s endless. Instead of making a finite product that’s easily consumed and sold, you reinvent and remix it over and over again. It can change with you, it can adapt to you, your emotions, the environment, and the time whereas a lot of music is traditionally made to be sold as a product, and that’s it. Dead. Unless it’s reformatted in CD or mp3.

Dub is a way for me to keep sound alive and not killing, restricting sound. That was definitely a major inspiration with me as The Bug. Also bass music. With Techno Animal were obsessed with bass. With God, my live band, I had two electric bass players and a double bass player. In Techno Animal we had layers and layers of bass on our tracks. So far that physicality and the sheer rhythmic propulsion of bass were very much attractive to me. That was very much what I wanted to be involved in The Bug. Also when I started bands, I was playing in sh*t venues with terrible sound systems. And when we toured as Techno Animal, we discovered club culture and huge sound systems. We discovered how to play to women, instead of just moody guys, who wanted to move.

When I was in my early forms as God, a lot of times I wanted to piss people off, I wanted to challenge people. I wanted to see how far you can push ‘em. I wasn’t interested in it being a two-way dialogue, whereas with Techno Animal and certainly The Bug I wanted it to be a two-way dialogue. I wanted people to be sucked into the sound, into being moved physically, psychologically, and philosophically.

You perform with Daddy Freddy a lot, ever thought of just forming another project with him?
You know what? I feel like he’s a part of The Bug. Of course he is his own thing as well, but for me I feel he’s very much a part of what I’m trying to do as the other vocalists as well. For my next album I’m working on at the moment for Ninja Tune, I’m working with a lot of vocalists. I’m trying to think of a narrative that would make sense for the album. I still love albums, I still like the idea that an album can tell a story. For me I don’t want it to be just one thing or the other, I need to get the balance right. Freddy plays a large part on the album, Flow Dan is on the album, Warrior Queen is on the album again. But then there’s new people like Gonjasufi, Death Grips, Grouper, and more who are gonna be on it too.

Have you ever gotten all these different vocalists you worked with together to perform with you at a gig?
It’s very rare because of money. Most people you work with want to get paid well for what they do, they should. It comes down to finance. I wish I can get everybody but I very much like the chemistry with Daddy Freddy and Flow Dan. They have a similar intensity to me, they’re both hungry for crowd response and to create an experience for people. Freddy is definitely a legend, apart from the fact in the past he has done incredible things, I think now he sounds better than he ever has. And he’s one of the best performers I ever worked with live with audiences.

How did you feel to go from London to all the way in Kuala Lumpur where people might or might not have heard of you?
It’s amazing. Considering I make music from a sh*tty place in London, coming to Kuala Lumpur to see how it’s gonna translate to people over here, if it makes to people over here, if they can pick up on the emotion and energy of what we’re trying to do. It’s an incredible thing.

This is really interesting to me coming to Kuala Lumpur. I must admit I knew very little of it. One of the things that attracts me about London is that it’s cosmopolitan. It’s a melting pot city – a freak colony, where people gravitate to for opportunities, dreams, and money. Coming to Kuala Lumpur it’s very interesting to see you have such strong ethnic mixture, a very diverse cultural influences. That’s fantastic, I love that. Sometimes it can be very difficult and can create a lot of frictions. But I think the collisions of influences are really healthy ultimately. I don’t trust monocultures, if you go outside of London in England to other cities and towns, it can become too English, too singular.

And without multiculturalism you wouldn’t have fallen in love with dub…
Of course, that’s exactly the point.

Beyond The Bug and King Midas Sound, is there anything else you’re working on?
No… there’s plenty! [Laughs]  Like I said there’s really not enough minutes in the day. I seem to do my best work by just focusing one thing at any given time as best I can. The thing is I’m the producer, musician, engineer, arranger, manager, I do all of that. I don’t have any engineers and I manage myself. For me I have to do everything and it takes up a lot of time. To keep the feeling of doing something special is massive pressure but good pressure. It’s stressful, no doubt about it, but I thrive on it. It can be frustrating to deal with me because I take a long time to try to get something out that I think’s got the impact it needs.

You mention about always looking to the future, are there any new acts you’re excited about that we should take notice of?
Lately there’s a British grime producer, who’s only about 20 years old, called Predator who is doing incredible stuff which is reminiscent of old school grime but with a new sound. Death Grips, who are on my upcoming album, are really this ultra-noisy, dissonant, atonal, angry, leftfield sort of hip hop group. They’re amazing. I’ve also been listening to a lot of thuggish American hip hop. Like A$AP Rocky, I love Clam Casino’s productions. I can’t pretend, some of the lyrics A$AP comes up with are bulls*t, but I think his flow and tone are incredible. The mixture of Clams Casino’s music and his vocals is fantastic. I’m always listening to new stuff, I use my Facebook page as a magazine because I hate all these Facebook small talk sh*t. So what I try to is to inspire people with visual and musical links on my page.

The internet makes music discovery easier…
It’s a small world. Even coming to Kuala Lumpur, talking to Cee (KL’s Red Bull Music Academy ambassador) about the city, I asked him are people even gonna know what sort of sounds they’re gonna get tomorrow and he said no, but people are just up for these things in Malaysia now. There’s a strong following for bass music and for new material, which is strength of the internet without a doubt. The internet’s made the world smaller, in a good way.

Do you find that, more often than not, the kind of music you play would translate to a sausage fest?
One of the things I really like about touring Europe, you play to a very mixed audience. A lot of women as well as guys. I don’t like playing to a very agro, male crowd. For me, one of the beauties of ragga, ever since the first time I made these hybrid mutant ragga beats, was seeing some amazingly crazy synchronisation between a woman’s hips and ragga rhythm. Women just seem to gravitate towards ragga rhythms. I think it’s the swing, it’s not a straight 4-4 rhythm. Anytime you drop ragga, it shows, you’d see women dancing. It sounds like BS but it really isn’t. I remember the first time I played any Bug rhythms live at the end of a Techno Animal show, which to be honest was a sausage fest with guys dressing in black looking moody, immediately 4 girls jumped up on stage and started grooving to the music right infront of our mixing desk. We were laughing, it was unheard of for us.

Ever felt like the scene is saturated with bedroom producers that you can’t decide who the real deal is?
Everyone can do music now. But who does it well, who can take it to another level. I think that can be totally random. I think it could be a bedroom grime producer who’s making music on some Playstation software, or it can be someone who spent years trying to create something thorough. I don’t give a f*ck where it comes from as long as it’s next level. As long as I get the feeling of future-shock, like “where the f*ck did that come from, wow.” Wow is something my friends and I talk about a lot, we wanna have that impact when you hear something and just go wow. Because there’s not enough of that. Too many people will take the safer route, I like people who take the dangerous route with sound, music, and art.

Such as yourself?
I don’t know about that [laughs]. But the stuff I’m interested in is more cutting edge. I make music more like therapy really. Hopefully that’s why people enjoy my music, it helps to get sh*t out of their system too. A lot of music is made for the wrong reasons.

What are the right reasons to make music? Other than to challenge an audience?
Wow, that’s a big question. I think everyone got different reasons to make music. Mine has changed. Like I said, in the beginning it was wild anger and frustration to where I’m at now is different, that fire is still in me, but there’s a physicality to it that expresses the fact that I love dance music when it’s used properly. Not when it’s cheap, cheesy bullsh*t. For me, it’s just trying to aspire to quality, music is a craft when it’s done at its best. It’s about the imagination, anyone with wild imagination has the capability to make wild music. The more f*cked up the idea, the more f*cked up the music, the more I’m going to like it. I’m listening to a lot of juke and footwork music from Chicago, which I’m loving, it’s repetitive but in a crazy way. Repetition doesn’t bother me anyway. The logic is illogical in juke and I enjoy that. It’s difficult to listen to a whole album of juke, but I like that test because the producers are trying to something very new and fresh.

You dabbled in a lot of genres, was there one that you just didn’t care for?
I wish I could be liberal and say there’s good in every type of music. But there’s definitely music that I think is just sh*t. Trance, I don’t see the appeal of trance. I can’t think of one good trance record that I have heard. As a philosophy I would talk about how 95% of music is sh*t, of every genre, trance is probably my blind spot, I can’t seem to find 5% of trance that’s any good at all. Maybe there is and I’m just being stupid. There’s got to be someone who makes good trance who’s going to either kill me or send me a trance song that would make me go wow. There’s gotta be. Like I said in every type of music, there’s always 5% that’s good. I was never a huge techno, but there are people like Plastikman and Underground Resistance who did amazing stuff with techno. I’m sure there’s 5% of trance that’s good but f*ck it, life’s too short [laughs].

On a final note, without getting too technical, what is your definitive advice to aspiring producers and DJs on how to make music?
Try to find your own voice, that’s the most important thing. You have to question why you’re making music, what would make someone wanna hear what you have to say as an individual through sound that would make anyone give a sh*t, and why you decide to make that track. Questioning yourself is very important, it can lead to madness as it did to me when I made the Thom Yorke remix, but I think it’s really crucial to develop your own voice. Do something original.

Christ. That was a long interview. But we feel all the more enlightened now, thanks!

Kevin Martin aka The Bug lectured and spun at the inaugural Red Bull Music Academy Session in Malaysia at Milk Club last 9 March 2012.

Follow the latest on Kevin Martin’s current alter ego adventure as The Bug on Twitter at @thebugzoo. Get yourself educated on RBMA at www.redbullmusicacademy.com